Getting down to the nitty-gritty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am

One of the spicier elements of the recent Nancy Kissel murder trial was the affair between the high-flying murderer and her trailer-park lover. This media portrayal of status inequality may have been overstated, given the possibilities for social mobility in the United States. It is certainly a faint shadow of the upstairs-downstairs sexual relationship of the likes of Princess Stephanie of Monaco, for example, and her bodyguard.

In any case, why the fascination? Can't flings - status-matched or otherwise - be accounted for by lust, pure and simple?

No doubt they can be - partly. The lust interpretation has the appeal of tying in with the stereotypes of uncomplicated, low-class virility and perverted, high-class brains. But lust is rarely, if ever, pure and simple. Even the straightforward and seemingly pertinent notion of 'Lady Chatterley syndrome' - to speak in the scientifically tenuous terms of the Venus and Mars literature - is not what it appears.

It is named after the protagonist in a D.H. Lawrence novel who has a torrid affair with her aristocratic husband's gamekeeper. But the syndrome is not about Lady Chatterley at all. It actually refers to the plight of her husband - on whose war-inflicted paraplegia the frustrated lady's fall from grace is blamed. It may sound contradictory but, given the choice, most people seek illicit sex with exactly the same sort of person they copulate with domestically.

That is why one would intuitively expect a high-ranking American banker's wife to have a clandestine relationship with another high-ranking American banker, or the equivalent. And this is why, when such a person strays below her economic, educational or social realm, one's particular interest is aroused. The bigger the gap - and therefore the more spectacular the comeuppance - the more humour and feelings of superiority the observer enjoys. Naturally, there are many interwoven reasons for choosing a socio-economic inferior. But most of the downwardly unfaithful probably feel that they are insufficiently valued.

Status-matched affairs will often have something to do with a perceived deficiency in a person's primary sexual relationship. Those who stoop to fornicate, on the other hand, probably have the conscious or unconscious feeling that their real worth is underrated on a broader scale - maybe by their family, social and/or professional circle. Thus, validation is sought in the arms of an outsider who is relatively ignorant of, or immune to, the standards by which those circles judge.

A second of the many possible threads in the story of unfaithfulness is the desire to escape. This differs from the above in that the escapee is running away from, rather than towards, something. That something is usually the weight of some kind of responsibility, which can include the responsibility of making a decision to leave an unhappy marriage.

Another motivator, deceptively similar to the above but actually quite distinct, is the desire for escapism. This does not refer to seeking out something one is lacking, or leaving something one does not want to face, but rather a desire to engage in a sort of intimacy tourism - the affair as entertainment or as well-managed coping mechanism. Whatever the pathway into the affair, the distance between the princess and the pauper is essential. Psychological distance casts a spell, but as soon as it is broken, things will change - and it is often only then that the real reasons behind the adventure start to become known to the participants.

Kissel is no Lady Chatterley. But both became locked in a Freudian clutch; they probably neither knew nor wanted to know its true origin and meaning. That is the normal state of affairs.

Jean Nicol looks at everyday issues from the point of view of a psychologist